How the transgender experience opens up new possibilities for thinking about gender and race
In the summer of 2015, shortly after Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender, the NAACP official and political activist Rachel Dolezal was "outed" by her parents as white, touching off a heated debate in the media about the fluidity of gender and race. If Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman, could Dolezal legitimately identify as black?
Taking the controversial pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” as his starting point, Rogers Brubaker shows how gender and race, long understood as stable, inborn, and unambiguous, have in the past few decades opened up—in different ways and to different degrees—to the forces of change and choice. Transgender identities have moved from the margins to the mainstream with dizzying speed, and ethnoracial boundaries have blurred. Paradoxically, while sex has a much deeper biological basis than race, choosing or changing one's sex or gender is more widely accepted than choosing or changing one’s race. Yet while few accepted Dolezal’s claim to be black, racial identities are becoming more fluid as ancestry—increasingly understood as mixed—loses its authority over identity, and as race and ethnicity, like gender, come to be understood as something we do, not just something we have. By rethinking race and ethnicity through the multifaceted lens of the transgender experience—encompassing not just a movement from one category to another but positions between and beyond existing categories—Brubaker underscores the malleability, contingency, and arbitrariness of racial categories.
At a critical time when gender and race are being reimagined and reconstructed, Trans explores fruitful new paths for thinking about identity.
Sociologist Brubaker (Grounds for Difference), a sociology professor at UCLA, seeks insight into the contemporary politics of belonging through his analysis of two high-profile cases of individual identity, both of which made headlines in 2015. Expanding on an article published in the academic journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, Brubaker examines the media narratives about Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman, and Rachel Dolezal, who claimed to be black, and suggests (not entirely successfully) that together these cases of publicly contested gender and ethnoracial identities are an "intellectual opportunity." The author argues that the concept of transness has particular salience today, and that the way people think about transgender experiences could be fruitfully used to think about race as well. The book is organized into two sections: part one describes public perceptions of race and gender identity in reaction to the Jenner and Dolezal narratives, and part two argues for the usefulness of "thinking with trans" with regard to race. Such interdisciplinary efforts are welcome, but the execution in this case is hasty. Brubaker is reasonably well versed on the history and politics of transgender identity, but he nevertheless accepts Time magazine's declaration of a "transgender tipping point" or a "trans moment" narrative of mainstream acceptance. Meanwhile, shifting notions of ethnoracial identity remain disappointingly underexplored. As a whole, the work leaves much room for further reflection and analysis.